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Inquiring Minds | 2012 | Hades and Persephone


You should not suffer the past. You should be able to wear it like a loose garment, take it off and let it drop.  

-Eva Jessye


Starving for Vassar Games

One could average my age with that of any other person in the lounge for registration at Vassar and still be coveted by AARP.

On paper, I attend "A Day at Vassar" for professional development credit, since the state is just too eager to strip away licensure from any teacher not sacrificing weekends on the altar stone of bureaucracy. My actual reason is that I have not dealt with college in years and, much as I recall disliking most of it, Vassar allows for a certain psycho-emotional spit-shine of the concept. Here, it seems possible that courses could be enlightening instead of tedious, particularly courses that each only take up at most an hour of my life and cost me nothing.

My first class is "Starving for Hunger Games". Of the available courses in this slot, Amber suggested this one partly because she liked Suzanne Collins's series. The presenter, Abigail Baird, is self-effacing when confronted with a class filled with people who look as though their children have already graduated from Vassar, and not simply owing to their age. There is a primness to their posture, a sense of "what can you possibly have of worth?" directed toward the whiteboard behind Dr. Baird, as though she isn't even worth allowing the light to bounce off her face. To her extreme credit, she ignores this posturing.

The crux of her lecture is that teenagers stand on the precipice of adulthood, but they will be damned if they are actually going to look to adults for clarification as to what that means. Instead, they listen to their peers whom they wish to emulate (and shag). Unfortunately, we as a society are much too concerned with protecting teens from their own innate stupidity. Baird's example is that cars used to be sturdy and couldn't go that fast - a point I question, but will let stand for the purposes of analogy - so driving into a tree taught the kid to be a bit more careful thanks to their newly broken leg. Now, cars are made of plastic and can accelerate wildly. Teens killed on impact are pretty well done learning from their mistakes.

Further, with the advent of cell phones, parents always know where their kids are. Teens are tethered and beg their parents for the flashiest leash on which they post everything they are doing, where and when and with whom. A healthy part of adolescent development is your parents not always knowing what you are doing. I certainly did quite a lot as a teenager that my parents didn't know. For the most part, it was nothing much worse than frenzied snogging with transitory girls and some light occultism (as opposed to my heavier but much more fun occultism of today under the guise of literary research), but it was important for me to feel I was discovering my own path, however much it was trod under by the hundreds of thousands who had done exactly as I had. I didn't want self-destruction in order to rebel. I had no taste for alcohol. Even now, most of it causes me to grimace. The scent of cigarettes sickened me. I had several friends who were mild-to-aggressive drug users. Watching a friend snort her backseat for cocaine residue does take some of the romance out of drugs. I learned my lessons fairly well secondhand, which was no doubt a blessing. Still, my parents allowed me my freedom - whether it be disappearing for most of a summer's day to points unknown on my bike or having my room to myself when I had company - and I rewarded them by never needing rehab, bail, or the use of the less savory parts of Planned Parenthood.

According to Baird and despite what their teachers may think, teens are practically paralyzed by overthinking. Everything they say must be carefully weighed because they speak out of a need to conform rather than a need to communicate. This is one of the reasons teens can spend forever on the phone with people they had just seen for eight hours in school, reiterating what they had just learned (socially, of course, no one expects teens discuss the finer points of The Scarlet Letter and truth tables). They need to encode what was important so they can function socially the next day. They are not ruled by logic - something of the greatest understatement ever - but instead by "the four F's of the amygdala: fight, flight, feeding, and reproduction." Teens believe themselves to be immortal and impervious. They have no fear of setting their hair on fire in the midst of a stupid stunt, but they are petrified by what might happen if one of their peers thinks they aren't cool.

Adolescence, particularly its tail-end in college, ought to be a time of identity play, where one is figuring out just who one actually is. High school was a caste system seen as rigid (though I found it permeable enough via dating and just being overly social), based on one's clothing and musical tastes. However, that identity play is increasingly foreign to this generation owing to a confirmation bias. Adolescents are given no opportunities to explore identity in any way of consequence. They figure out a caste and then tweet only to those who reaffirm them. There is no threat of contrary ideas on which they can prove their mettle. In Baird's words, "There is nothing wrong with rejecting social norms. That is how most of us get to Vassar." However, you need to be confronted with the social norms in order to know what you are rejecting and figure out why.

Once you are an adult, you tend to be pretty well settled as to who you are and what you want and can speak out of a confidence of self. Of course, the expectations change with age too. I can no longer get endless praise for turning out a five paragraph essay that doesn't make the reader wish to tear her eyes out. I can never again throw a tantrum and actually get what I want.

Baird says the attitude inherent in being an adolescent - "Of course we are going to change the world" - is a very Vassar sentiment. In another life, where Vassar had been a little more liberal with their financial aid rather than just their educational policy, I would have been a student here. This scholastic decision would not have been as low-cost and low-risk as Baird advocates of teens. I would have absorbed the social norms of a very different set of peers and, more than likely, would be a far different person now. I am not certain I would like this person - I would not covet his student loan burden, to be sure, though I might his address book - but I'd like to sit down and have lunch with him. More than any romantic partner, Vassar is to me the one that got away. I will always cast a moony glance campus-ward and wonder what it would have been like to learn from the many mistakes I made here.

There has never been a time since I started college where I have set foot on Vassar campus and not felt like I was no more than a popped balloon from the life I would otherwise be living. I would look at the students lounging about the now defunct Cubbyhole Cafe, I would pass them on the streets as they ignored the realities of Poughkeepsie, I would see them as I sat on a bench and I would feel this tension. Would I have known them in a slightly different life? If I had taken so expensive a leap, would we have been friends? Was it worth it, after all, to accept the scholarship to the community college up the street? And I will never know. I have taught two summers at Vassar, and I could never free myself of this sensation that I was in the right place, but not in the right way. While the other teenagers believed they would live forever as millionaires, I had a sneaking suspicion that I would live well into my thirties and would need an additional income as I wrote. I couldn't delude myself, but I resent my previous practicality sometimes.

Aside from a few non-sequential months at Dutchess, I don't think I ever much appreciated "college student" as an identity as I do today. Some wonderful things occurred because of my collegiate education that inform who I am, but it rarely felt like my classes had much to do with shaping me. With the benefit of distance and years in the educational system, I now see that I was largely shoved away with arms full of busy work whenever I asked a question slightly outside the prescribed curriculum, so I stopped trying to make my professors earn their paychecks. There was no real effort to educate me, as hungry as I was for it. My professors where ordered on pain of their tenure being declined to give the appearance of something to grade rather than to teach anything. As such, I did not find much value in my education, with the exception of a few courses taught by devoted and passionate people. My post-secondary education owes a lot more to reading and working in the field or on my own than it does with anything for which I will be paying back student loans until 2032. I couldn't feel attached to the colleges because I went home most nights.

I know that I am now the sort of person who could best appreciate the college experience, independent and intellectually insatiable, with the benefit of a broadened worldview. There are subjects now that I want to learn about in depth for my own research but I am largely relegated to books and insufficient TED talks.

If I were to redo college (via magical time travel, not by being a non-traditional student), I would stay single and allow myself to experience a lot of the social aspects that I neglected for a dorm bed filled with an uncertain lover. This is not to imply that I would sleep around by any stretch of the imagination (okay fine, some extracurricular flirting and snogging might occur) but that I would not feel the need to tether myself as though my girlfriend represented a buoyant beam in an otherwise barren ocean. I would ask the questions, even if it taxed my state university professors (with, again, the exception of those few who really loved their subjects and students). I would do all the readings that presented something I wanted to know and take notes because I was interest, not because I was fearful of consequences.

I would not trade what I have now - a steady job and professional fulfillment through my publication, a lover who would think little of living in a studio apartment so long as she was kept in paintbrushes and canvasses - for what are supposed to be the best years of one's life. I know I did not appreciate them when I had them, because I am not the same person as the one who attended college. I do not doubt that I will one day miss my early thirties, when I will be the sort of person who has more wrinkles than tact like some around me today at Vassar, and I hope I do so because I spent the intervening years in gratitude and not in missing roads down which I did not travel like a solipsistic teenager convinced he has forever.

Soon in Xenology: The Discontinuity.

last watched: Alphas
reading: Third Blood
listening: Radiohead

Inquiring Minds | 2012 | Hades and Persephone

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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